The Dark Knight
Christopher Nolan’s second Bat-film rises above the genre to such a degree that it's not jsut a great comic book film, but a great film - period. Pick a moment in this film and it’s bound to be a stand-out: The Joker’s opening heist, Hong Kong, the truck chase, the ferry problem, the skyscraper battle. The crown jewel of this film, however, is Heath Ledger’s Joker. His portrait of anarchy personified is perhaps the greatest genre performance of all time, to the point where he actually received a posthumous Oscar for the role. This film and its performances represent the high-water mark of what a superhero film is capable of being.
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World
The comic-based film that most embodies the art form doesn’t have a single superhero in sight. Edgar Wright uses sound and editing like nobody else, especially in this fast-paced wonder where the jokes come fast and furious. Every frame of the movie is like a comic frame and the action is wondrous. Each set piece (with each evil ex-boyfriend our hero must fight) uses different techniques— Matthew Patel's takes on a Bollywood flavor, while the fight with Brandon Routh’s vegan bassist is a magical, musical showdown. The movie is infused with video game nostalgia, mixing the 8-bit stylings with comic sound balloons into a visual feast.
Marvel's The Avengers
This was the first real superhero team-up film and it still shines like a glittering infinity gem. The MCU group films have gone bigger (Avengers: Age of Ultron) and more dramatic (Captain America: Civil War), but this one has an all-around balance that we’ll never forget. It’s bursting with wit and inspired pairings, and by the time the ending battle of New York comes around, you’re either swept up in the superhero insanity or you don’t have a pulse. Every character gets a payoff (even Hawkeye), which speaks to the patience and slow-burn development the MCU put into its world - making Avengers an unforgettable experience.
Speaking of the MCU...Black Panther! This powerful, gorgeous, and well-balanced battle between King T’Challa and Michael B. Jordan’s antagonistic Killmonger is a layered, lethal, and fantastical experience. Letitia Wright’s Shuri steals every single scene she’s in while the Afrofuturist design makes the look of this film something we’ve never seen before. Wakanda Forever!
This movie should not work. Based in Norse mythology, the film also weaves in a hefty dose of Jack Kirby-inspired psychadelia. It’s one of the funniest comic book films ever made and an inspiring meditation on immigration. Taika Waititi is an artful, subversive, and bonkers-beyond-belief genius, and we have no idea who decided to give him the reins to the third Thor film— we’re just glad that Marvel had the balls to do it. Chris Hemsworth has never been better as the title character, and, thanks to a supporting cast featuring the likes of Jeff Goldblum, the film is full of love, humor, and charm. Plus, the movie actually lives up to its title and destroys Asgard. That's no small feat.
The most somber entry on the list, this film about a dying warrior's final mission of redemption is alternatingy hilarious, violent, and completely tragic. Capping off a relationship that we’ve enjoyed for years, Wolverine and Professor Xavier pass a legacy on to the next generation while proving what lengths the truly good will go to in order to make a sacrifice count. There are no more guns in this valley.
The film that launched the MCU is here for utterly perfect casting. Robert Downey Jr. was born to play Tony Stark. The charming, hysterical film is loaded with Stark-snark and plenty of pathos. We're already rooting for him by the time he starts to put his first suit together in a cave and we don’t stop until after he throws down with Jeff Bridges’ Obadiah Stane. Ending with one of the greatest, secret-identiy-shrugging lines of any superhero movie, this was always going to kick off a franchise. It's just too good.
This movie is incredibly important in terms of representation, but that’s not the only reason why it’s here. Gal Gadot IS Diana Prince. She IS Wonder Woman. She is powerful, empathetic, graceful, strong, funny, vulnerable, and pure. From the smaller moments of Diana trying ice cream for the first time, to the instantly iconic “No Man’s Land” sequence, this movie delivers thanks to Patty Jenkins and Gadot's perfectly-embodied performance. That it's the first female superhero movie is just icing for this killer film.
Superman II (The Richard Donner Cut)
This is Kal-El’s only appearance on this list and it's a different version of the film than most people are used to - but it’s everything that was previously great about Superman II, with most of the silly stuff taken out. There’s still a grand battle, lots of “Kneel before Zod,” and Marlon Brando’s Jor-El is back in his rightful place. Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor entering the post-fight Daily Planet offices and casually dusting his suit off with a handkerchief is still incredible and Superman's utter humanity is still felt in every scene - but this edit takes the fluff out of Superman's best and lets us bask in his glory.
Hellboy II: The Golden Army
The genius of Guillermo del Toro cannot be celebrated enough. Though his first Hellboy movie was great, he wisely let the “monsters” take center stage here, creating a film as thematically poignant as it is visually stunning. Ron Perlman is a touching, smart, wisecracking Hellboy that just wants to meet the world. The crazy occult world of Mike Mignola’s comics finds perfect action and artistry under the direction of del Toro, making the film one of comics' most truthful-feeling adaptations.